It was the year 1999. There was a discussion at work about formulating strategies for a new client. As the storyteller and marketing communications lead for the project, I said, “This weekend? Too soon. I can’t do it.”
I pronounce “can’t” as car with nt on the end. This man — Joe, a middle-aged balding, short IT consultant with perpetually wet armpits and penchant for bad ties, sounded baffled by the fact that (1) I spoke English. (2) My spoken English and pronunciations were different than his. So, he took it upon himself to discuss my knowledge of English and accents.
I grew up across three countries and continents, between my boarding school in the Indian Himalayas (which was originally run by the British government…then we kicked their bums in 1947 and India got its freedom), to the land people are utterly terrified of these days — Libya, and finally the city of big dreams: NYC.
“I started to collect stories, culinary skills, and experiences everywhere I went from the time I was about seven years old.”
I started to collect stories, culinary skills, and experiences everywhere I went from the time I was about seven years old. Different “accents” accompanied me on my journey. By the late ‘90s, I had landed in NYC. Those were the days where I had more patience and people were a lot more clueless about globalization.
In the ‘90s, not many people talked about their acrobatic yoga life or threw around lines like, “The light in me honors the light in you and bows down,” to show their familiarity with India. Also, in the ‘90s, there was no Netflix streaming to empower or broaden horizons of those who had never had the opportunity to engage or interact with the world outside of the United States…or sometimes, even outside of NYC.
Joe from work asked, “Where did you learn to speak such good English?” Mind you, he wasn’t an ass. AAAsss. Tomato-tomahto. You get the point, right? For someone who had never stepped outside of the tristate area and believed foreign countries were all about exotic locales and subservient women and spicy foods and snake charmers and voodoo, he was plain curious.
“Joe from work asked, ‘Where did you learn to speak such good English?’”
I politely explained to him that most Indians, from middle-class or upper middle-class families, study in English-speaking convent schools. When I was growing up, they followed the British system of education. You are taught by nuns or fathers who only speak English. In my case, I had a single, very strict headmistress, Ms. DeSouza, who carried around remnant hints of colonialism despite growing up in free India.
Every time that Ms. DeSouza caught students speaking in Hindi, she would reprimand them: “learn five new, English words from the dictionary and memorize them. And then create sentences out of these newly learned words.” One week my friend Preeti had to learn “cremate” and “incriminate.” After being accused of cheating in a test, she shouted to the class, “I’ve been cremated! I’ve been cremated in a crime!”
* * *
Back to Joe…I didn’t ask him to volunteer, but he started to teach me pronunciations. He picked up a can of coke. “What is this, Sweetah?”
ME: Rolling my eyes at my mispronounced name, “It’s a can.”
HIM (with a hint of victory in his voice): “So, you can say ‘kaaan.’ He meant the American pronunciation. “Now try ‘kaant.’” The letter “A” is pronounced differently in British versus American English….as if you didn’t already know that
ME (with a fake American accent): “Caaaan’t.”
* * *
These ridiculous English lessons had happened to me before. But this time I WAS DONE with the pressure to Americanize myself or explain my ethnicity because I didn’t “look” or “sound” Indian! It wasn’t just Joe at work; I was tired of the internal racism from people within the Indian community as well.
“These ridiculous English lessons had happened to me before.”
The British rulers taught Indians a marvelous thing: always think lesser of yourself and your own people. I have never heard a Russian, an Arab, a French, or a Mexican person apologize for their “accents.” But Indians are quick to judge and feel self-conscious of not owning an American accent.
I noticed that many desis who grew in the British schooling system in India, picked up an “American accent” within weeks of getting their U.S. visa. Over tea once, a friend said, “baaathroom” and quickly corrected it to the American pronunciation: ‘bathroom.’
I mean, Priyanka Chopra, Bollywood celebrity, the star of hit TV show Quantico, and social media’s favorite celebrity, openly talks about accent-challenges. She has all the means in the world to hire the best of the best “accent correctors” but when you grow up to learn vowels and diction a certain way, it’s hard to get rid of them.
Honestly, I speak the way I was taught and don’t see anything wrong with it if people can comprehend my words.
“People care more about the meaning and depth of your words, not how they sound in your mouth.”
As a writer, entrepreneur, and holistic health practitioner, my work brings me to the stage often, and I do plenty of public speaking. I let the audience know that how I sound is not an improvisation of Indian accent — this is how I talk.
I have noticed that people respond to authenticity and honesty much more than they do to put-on Americanisms. They care more about the meaning and depth of your words, not how they sound in your mouth.
NYC, my home and most favorite place in the world, has influenced my vocabulary and many parts of my speech. That’s the beauty of living in a cosmopolitan city, right, dude? But it’s also taught me that you can hold on to your individual identity even as you become a part of the beautiful melting pot. Because different accents, much like aromas, make life less mundane.
* * *
With emotions pent up, I stared at Joe. He was repeating himself in an over-zealous tone. “See, I told ya. You could do it. You can say ‘kaant.’
ME (smiling): “Oh, I never had any doubts. It’s not that I ‘kaaaant’ speak the way you do; I choose to honor what I grew up learning…therefore, my accent.”
* * *
Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an award-winning author of 11 books, mindfulness writing coach, wellness columnist, and certified yoga and Ayurveda holistic health practitioner who helps writers elevate their productivity using holistic wellness. Louisiana Catch (Modern History Press, 2018) is her debut U.S. novel. Find her on: Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.